Sweating through their suits behind a podium set a few hundred feet above the staggering coastline that is this city's best asset, a group of business and political leaders attempted to sell Jacmel over the weekend.
Their pitch: the opportunity to help shape this underdog Haitian city into a true tourist paradise. The offer drew such an unprecedented mass of potential investors – abut 80 foreigners travelled from Port-au-Prince to hear it – that many were forced to sleep three to a room in sold-out hotels, an inconvenience softened by a late-night dance show and a steady supply of Prestige, Haiti's national beer.
The event, attended by the city's top politicians, was part of Jacmel's ongoing mission to force the decentralization of post-earthquake investment by wooing business people away from Haiti's overrun capital and onto the shores of what was once the country's top tourist destination. It was also a small power play on the part of local politicians frustrated by the fact that the reconstruction of Jacmel, a city many would argue is Haiti's most precious cultural gem, is not a national priority.
"We hope bringing investors here will make the central government aware that Haiti and the diaspora care about Jacmel," Mayor Edo Zenny said in a speech.
He did not articulate the deep fears among leaders here that without private investment, the city will never be rebuilt. In Port-au-Prince, there is still much wrangling over which of the decimated government departments are to oversee urban planning, zoning and mapping the future of collapsed cities.
However, Patrick Delatour, the national Minister of Tourism, was frank about the grim outlook. It will take the government 10 to 20 years to return Haiti's tourism sector to its pre-earthquake state, he said. One quarter of the nation's international-standard hotel rooms – 500 in total – were destroyed on Jan. 12. Investors should see that dearth as an opportunity, he said.
"It's about time people start investing in hotels in this country," he said, adding: "We need a partnership between the public and private sector to plan the reconstruction."
To ease the minds of daunted investors – and to inspire some to take more than baby steps in Jacmel – Lesly Kernisant, a Haitian-born doctor who chairs the Société Immobilière d'Agriculture, de Commerce et de Tourisme a group of 51 New York-based shareholders with a range of investments in Haiti, presented an ambitious real-estate project his group is pushing forward.
"I was able to convince my colleagues, let's remove our money from Wall Street and put it on Main Street Haiti," Dr. Kernisant said.
Already the owners of the Cap Lamandou, an oceanfront hotel in Jacmel that is the most luxurious in southern Haiti, SIMACT is planning the construction of a new $25-million gated residential and hotel complex on a 24-acre seaside plot just outside of Jacmel. Called Belle Rive, the country club-esque complex is to feature a 120-room luxury hotel and 94 condominiums, a private marina, health spa and movie theatre. Its target buyers, Dr. Kernisant said, are not only tourists in search of an exotic locale, but "Haitian baby-boomers" who have spent their professional lives in Canada and the United States and can afford what is sure to be a steep price tag.
"They're the ones whose retirement portfolios are very full," he said. "If you were to offer them a condo on the shores of Boca Raton [Florida] or Jacmel, the choice is simple."
Shovels at Belle Rive will hit the ground as soon as SIMACT raises sufficient financing for construction, which may not take long now that Haiti has the attention of investors, Dr. Kernisant said.
"The earthquake had the paradoxical effect of making Haiti a place people are now looking to invest," he said.
The question is whether – and where – international investors will be convinced to do more than just look.
"Jacmel is a place where it could really work," said Guy Hart Jr., managing partner of the Syracuse-based real estate investment firm Hart Lyman Companies LLC, which has spent more than $100,000 since January conducting research for the construction of a planned community.
"Before the earthquake, Jacmel was quaint. It had character," Mr. Hart said. "You might not have been able to say the same thing about Port-au-Prince."